In Praise of Kinmen's Architecture
I come from a neighborhood in America with identical concrete streets and similar-looking-houses on similarly-sectioned, similarly-manicured lots. In the 1960s, Malvina Reynolds wrote Little Boxes, a song about the suburban developments occurring a ten-minute drive away from my house: "...Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes all the same." Until I had access to a public transit pass, my world was just these identical homes and the nearby mall.
In the same way that the 'modern' uniformity of the suburbs comforted new residents, the mall seems to be a universal comfort. This might be because of the perceived familiarity of it all--brands we know, products we know, under florescent lights and tiled floors, behind glass doors. Perhaps the gratification of a mall is that it is simultaneously 'modern' consumer culture, as well as devoid of culture. One doesn't get the sense that there's a story behind the number of stairs, or the placement of tiles, or the colors in these structures. It is 'simply a mall,' or it's 'simply a house."
I love my neighborhood, but as a child, I couldn't help but feel an inexplicable sterility to these boxes upon boxes. Arriving in Kinmen was a welcome change for me: pastoral, distinct, and filled with symbolism in its architecture.
The first time I entered a traditional Kinmen home, I was in awe. The grand wooden doors opened to reveal a beautiful courtyard with well-manicured potted plants lining the red brick walls. The amount of craftsmanship that went into the extensive, individualized tiles and varying patterns in brickwork, as well as the delicately curved roofs, reminded me of the ornate details of religious buildings. Upon entering the fragrant bedrooms, I was reminded of my childhood desire to live in a tree house--the loft beds required a ladder to climb up, where it smelled even more like cedar wood. I couldn't believe that people live in such beautiful homes.
Meanwhile, as I walked around, my friend explained the details. "This is the gong tile. See how it looks like the character for 'work'?" "And this is the ren tile. See how it looks like 'person'?" "These windows indicate that its the home of a wealthy person. See the number of slits in the window?" "And this is a swallowtail roof, that's a saddleback roof, and that's how you can tell the difference between temples and homes." The floors suddenly seemed more than red geometric tiles, and the walls and roofs were beyond beautiful parts of the structure. Everything seemed to have meaning. After living in Kinmen, I can no longer see a house as simply a house, but as a beacon where messages of family, religion, hopes, natural emblems, and history seem to shout through the tiles.